If there’s such a thing as an era in the quick-change world of junior college basketball, the CCRI men’s team is beginning a new one this season. The Knights lost the bulk of last year’s roster, most notably sophomore stars Desmond Williams and Bryan Yarce. That duo was the driving force behind two big seasons that included a run to the national championship game in 2012.
Three weeks into the new era, the Knights are forging an identity, jelling and putting the pieces in place to put their own stamp on the program.
“It’s a process because we have so many new faces, but they’re doing a nice job,” said head coach Rick Harris. “It’s a good group of kids. They’re getting used to everything and adjusting. On the court, they’re listening and accepting their roles.”
So far, the results have followed right in line. The Knights were 6-2 heading into Tuesday night’s league opener against Massasoit.
“We’re dealing with some injuries, still shuffling things around,” Harris said. “Typical first semester stuff. But we’ve played pretty well so far.”
While the Knights are tasked with replacing 86 percent of their scoring from a year ago, they have a handful of players who have been in the program and are ready to take control.
That group is led by sophomore big men Pat Marchand and Elijah Okagbare. Both stand 6-foot-8, and the Knights have been using them in a twin towers starting lineup, giving them a look that few teams in Division II can match.
Marchand, a former Cranston East standout, averaged 7.2 points per game as a key contributor last year and has upped that number to 12.3 this year. Okagbare is a native of Atlanta, Ga., who didn’t play quite as much as Marchand last year. He hasn’t scored much yet this season, but has been a strong rebounder and shot blocker.
Together, they make a unique tandem.
“Our emphasis is going inside,” Harris said. “We adapt to the personnel we have. That’s the nature of it. We’re starting them both now and they can do a lot for us at both ends. Most teams don’t have that kind of size and we want to take advantage of that.”
The Knights also have redshirt freshman Alioune Ndiaye, another 6-foot-8 player, but he’s more of a small forward.
The rest of the roster is dominated by guards and swingmen, and there’s talent at every spot. The top player may be 6-foot-4 sophomore Anthony Henry, who played half of the 2011-12 season with the Knights before sitting out last year. Back in action now, Henry opened the second act of his Knights career with 19 points in the season opener and poured in 26 the next time out. Currently, he’s battling knee tendonitis and may sit for a few games, but when healthy, he gives the Knights athleticism and scoring punch on the wing.
“He’s a veteran and he’s playing like a veteran,” Harris said. “He’s been a great leader for us. We expect a big year from him.”
The backcourt also includes sophomore Rudy Brito, who’s back from last year’s team, and freshman Pat Doyle, a Narragansett native who red-shirted last season.
Newcomers dominate the rest of the rotation, and they’re already making their presence felt. Sophomore point guard Anthony Jernigan from East Hartford, Conn., has been the team’s leading scorer thus far, averaging 16.3 points per game. Freshman Billy Soriano, who spent much of his high school career at Mt. Pleasant before moving to Florida, is back in Rhode Island and is averaging 6.1 points for the Knights.
“We’ve got some very good point guards,” Harris said.
Their backcourt mates are defined by their outside shooting abilities. Robert Skinner, Cody L’Hereux, Kevin Marmolejos, Malieke Young and Johnson Weah can all get it done from long range. Former Coventry standout Austin Gagan made the team as a walk-on and can also score.
The Knights are shooting 36 percent from three-point range. Marmolejos has made 11 of 18 threes to lead the way.
“We’re outstanding in the two and three positions,” Harris said. “We’ve got some guys who can light it up.”
In addition to all the new faces on the court, the Knights have a new but familiar face on the bench. Soap Toun, who starred for Harris at Cranston East, has joined the Knights as an assistant coach. Toun led East to two state championships.
“He’s been a great addition,” Harris said. “I remember him growing up, and at East, he played in three championship games. He was the guy that got us there. He’s a great kid and he’s a people person. The kids relate well to him.”
The Knights were set to face Massasoit on Tuesday, with results unavailable at press time. They’ll host Lincoln College on Monday at 6 p.m.